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The International Writers Magazine
: Same Sex Marriages

The Fundamental Issue of Same-Sex Marriage
M. C. Wood

According to a New New York Times/CBS News poll, Americans favor a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. And, according to a New York Times article, (“Strong Support Found for Ban on Gay Marriage”, December 21, 2003) 53 percent of Americans view marriage primarily as a religious relationship.
In his recent State of the Union address, President Bush vowed to pursue a constitutional amendment asserting marriage as a relation between a man and a woman should state courts “arbitrarily” decide to extend the concept of marriage to include same-sex couples.

The fundamental dilemma, then, for the same-sex marriage debate, is one of conflict between church and state. It’s a conflict most Americans aren’t willing to face head-on, but this issue forces us to realize how much America relies on religious belief as a basis for civil law.

Much of the debate over same-sex marriage centers around the question of whether or not the issue is one of same-sex couples receiving the full rights and benefits of citizenship, or is an affront to the “sanctity” of marriage. Activists for gay marriage argue that their relationships are not fully protected without legal recognition. But they also want the recognition that comes with the socially legitimating power of marriage.
For those who agree with legal protection and rights, but oppose granting gay couples legal marriage, there is the compromise of civil unions. They find the idea of gay marriage religiously offensive, and so aren’t willing to have it legalized. Ultimately, this is the crux of the inconsistency on the part of the anti-gay-marriage group: they cannot divest legal marriage from its religious roots.

This heel-digging reveals something we’re rarely willing to admit, namely that many of our laws, such as those regarding marriage, are grounded in religion. The fact that most Americans take marriage as a natural part of life’s course such that any change to it is met with screams of horror. also reveals how utterly embedded the religious practice is in our culture — so embedded, in fact, that the religious practice has been codified in civil law. The Massachusetts Supreme Court recognizes that, legally at least, there is a separation between religion and law such that the law, though based on religious practice, is not subject to that practice for its application.

Even venerable columnists such as William Safire (New York Times Op-Ed December 1, 2003) acknowledge that Americans can’t quite fathom same-sex marriage because they can’t fathom same-sex sex. Such an inability betrays ingrained ideas about marriage as a fundamentally religious institution. Instead of arguing about whether or not there should be a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, there should be a debate on whether or not Americans’ civil rights ought to be circumscribed by religious belief. We spend so much time decrying theocratic rule in other countries, but what else is the outcry over granting rights and protections to every American regardless of race, gender, disability, or sexual orientation?

That’s the most fundamental problem. Related to it is another enormous problem, namely our unreflective attitudes about marriage, which apply not only to same-sex marriage, but to unmarried heterosexual couples. These make our collective response to developments in the concept something akin to Chicken Little saying that the sky was falling. Even if the anti-gay-marriage group is right to decry same-sex marriage as harmful to the institution, we may already be on our way toward its end — or at the very least a revaluation of its value in its current form. After all, there is certainly a correlation between the emancipation of women within the institution, such as the right to own property and accuse her husband of rape, and the divorce rates we see today. Nevertheless, changes in the concept do not necessitate the dissolution of the institution or society itself.

If nothing else, this debate forces us to think of the foundations of our ideas, beliefs, and practices. If we don’t do that, then we become a calcified citizenry, and that, to be sure, would prove far more harmful to American democracy than the thought of same-sex marriage.

© M. C. W. Feb 2004

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